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Mining jobs at highest mark here in 14 years

Despite complaints about the Obama administration’s “war on coal,” new government data shows employment in the Appalachian mining industry is at a 14-year high.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration says the total number of coal jobs nationwide is at its highest level since 1996, with 90,354 jobs in 2011.

The Charleston Gazette reports that in Appalachia, the 59,059 jobs reported were the most since 1997.

Growth in employment in the coal industry comes despite increased scrutiny and regulatory changes aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of mining.

“There is evidence that strictly regulated coal mining is producing more jobs while protecting the environment,” West Virginia University law professor Pat Mc- Ginley told a subcommittee of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee on Nov. 18.

The number of coal jobs in the region has increased by 10 percent since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began a crackdown on mountaintop-removal mining in June 2009, Matt Wasson, director of programs for the group Appalachian Voices, said his review of the MSHA data.

“In other words, the idea of a ‘permitorium’ on coal mine permitting that House Republicans are pushing out is completely and demonstrably false,” Wasson said. “The hysterical reaction of coal companies to any and all regulations to protect the safety of workers and communities near their mines is about profits, not jobs.”

Congressional allies of the coal industry have intensifi ed their attack on the administration, with three hearings held recently to collect testimony critical of water protection rules and a proposed effort to streamline the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, reported the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward Jr., an expert on the coal industry.

Last week, reported Ward, House Republicans held two hearings aimed at criticizing the OSM, and Senate Democrats held a separate hearing to question the Interior Department’s proposal to merge some OSM administrative and mine reclamation functions with the federal Bureau of Land Management.

Since President Obama took office, his administration has sought to reduce the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, and has expressed serious concerns about the growing body of science linking the practice to a variety of adverse health effects for nearby residents. But Obama himself blocked the EPA from implementing tougher new smog standards that would have reduced pollution from coal-fired power plants.

At the same time, the United Mine Workers union has praised Obama for putting former union safety director Joe Main in charge of MSHA and increasing enforcement efforts since the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in April 2010 that killed 29 miners in West Virginia.

Republican congressional leaders, meanwhile, have blocked new minesafety legislation and are working against proposed MSHA rules aimed at ending black lung disease.

One large operator, Alpha Natural Resources, is facing a specific federal court action to block one of its Logan County, W.Va., permits. However, Alpha told industry analysts early this month it’s not worried now about any permitting problems.

“ We feel pretty good about what we have permitted so far,” Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield said. “There’s nothing in 2012 that is contingent upon any sort of regulatory relaxation or need.”

Last month, when the industry won an initial court victory over part of the EPA’s permit crackdown, National Mining Association President Hal Quinn said, “with this decision, coal communities can get back to the business of producing affordable energy for Americans and put more Americans back to work.”

New charts posted on the industry group’s website, though, promote the fact that coal mining employment nationwide has increased by 8.5 percent since 2001.

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